February 14, 1849

First American-Made Valentines Sold

On this day in 1849, the first American-made valentines were sold in Worcester. They were designed and made by Esther Howland, the daughter of a local stationer. After graduating from Mt. Holyoke College, she returned to Worcester and began making valentines modeled on a fancy one she had received from an English friend. Her brother took the samples on a sales trip and came home with an astonishing $5,000 worth of orders. Howland began by hiring her friends to assemble the valentines; within a few years, she built her business into a $100,000 a year enterprise, a notable success for any entrepreneur but a truly remarkable accomplishment for a nineteenth-century woman.

Highly elaborate and personalized valentines — with ribbon trimmings, pages of artistic illustrations, hidden doors, and sometimes an inner envelope for a secret love message, lock of hair, or ring — could sell for as much as $50, equivalent to the cost of a horse drawn buggy!

When Esther Howland was growing up in the 1830s, it seemed unlikely she would make her mark as "The Mother of the American Valentine."

Her father owned the largest book and stationery store in Worcester. His success allowed him to send Esther to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. At Mt. Holyoke, Esther participated in annual Valentine festivities (later banned by the college for being too frivolous). Shortly after she completed her studies in 1847, one of her father's business associates happened to send her an elaborate English valentine.

German immigrants to the U.S. had brought with them a tradition of cutting paper hearts for loved ones, and in the first half of the nineteenth century, other Americans were beginning to exchange simple cards on which they wrote their own sentimental verses.

But English valentines were entirely different. The Industrial Revolution began in England several decades before it did in the U.S.; English factories mass-produced intricately detailed paper, which could be embossed with flowers and adorned with perforated paper lace. These fancy valentines were extremely expensive to import, so very few circulated in the United States.

In only a few years, her creativity and skill turned a nascent cultural phenomena — the celebration of romantic love — into a booming business.

Esther Howland guessed correctly that the growing emphasis on romantic love made America an untapped market for English-style valentines. She was confident that, given the right materials, she could copy the English designs. Esther Howland invented what was essentially a new industry. In only a few years, her creativity and skill turned a nascent cultural phenomena — the celebration of romantic love — into a booming business.

She knew that the key to the fancy valentine was fancy paper. Esther asked her stationer father to import some embossed and perforated lacy paper for her. He did, and in 1849 she made 12 sample valentines. Her brother took them along on his next sales trip. She hoped she might receive $200 in orders and was taken by surprise when her brother returned with orders worth 25 times that amount for fancy valentines.

Esther Howland was determined to meet the demand. She had envisioned a small home-based business appropriate for an unmarried lady, but she soon revised her plan. She recruited a group of her friends to work out of her home as "assemblers." She also distributed boxes of supplies with one finished sample as a guide to women who preferred to assemble the valentines in their own homes.

She introduced countless variations, including multiple layers of paper or lift-up flaps, and accordion-like folds that elevated one portion of the design and created a shadowbox effect.

When she was satisfied that she could turn out valentines in quantity, Howland began to establish her business. She placed advertisements in local papers and took orders through her family's stationery shop. When her activities outgrew her family's house, she moved the operation to a rented building in downtown Worcester.

It was Esther Howland's unique designs that separated her valentines from those of the competitors who soon flattered her with imitation. She introduced countless variations, including multiple layers of paper or lift-up flaps, and accordion-like folds that elevated one portion of the design and created a shadowbox effect. She pioneered the use of colored paper wafers set beneath different sections of the perforated paper and overlaid embossed flowers.

To capitalize on the Victorians' feeling that romantic sentiments were private and should be kept secret, Esther Howland created separate sheets with a variety of "mottos" that could be pasted inside the card. She published a book of 131 different verses that dealers could use to help customers personalize their valentines.

An astute businesswoman, she developed valentines for all budgets.

An astute businesswoman, she developed valentines for all budgets. Her simpler cards started at five cents, but highly elaborate and personalized valentines — with ribbon trimmings, pages of artistic illustrations, hidden doors, and sometimes an inner envelope for a secret love message, lock of hair, or ring — could sell for as much as $50, equivalent to the cost of a horse drawn buggy! By making — and spending the money to advertise — a high-quality product in a wide range of prices, Esther Howland built the New England Valentine Company into a flourishing business.

To care for her ailing father, in 1881 Esther Howland sold out to another Worcester stationer, who was already producing machine-cut valentines and who added a line of cards in the "Howland Style." Worcester remained the "Valentine Capital of America" well into the twentieth century.

If You Go

The Library of the Worcester Historical Museum has several collections that include Esther Howland valentines and cards made by her successors in the city.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Central region of Massachusetts.

Sources

"Esther Howland Exhibit," prepared for Greeting Card Association, 2001.

American Antiquarian Society online exhibition, "Making Valentines: A Tradition in America."

To learn more about Esther Howland, Valentines, and greeting cards, see the following sources:

Michelon, Christina . "Touching Sentiment: The Tactility of Nineteenth-Century Valentines." Common-place.org.  16, no. 2 (Winter 2016).

Mother of the Valentine”: Esther Howland, Worcester, and the American Valentine Industry, Past is Present: American Antiquarian Society Blog. 

Shank, Barry. A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

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